MONTANA – For as long as the state of Montana existed, and long before that, its people have hunted its wildlife.
For millennia, Native Americans relied on hunting with primitive tools to make a living. With European colonization, the evolution of hunting from food to market and trophy hunting in the 18th century marked major changes for the landscape and game herds. Animals like bison have been decimated and predators prepared for extinction.
As early as 1865, the territorial legislature passed Montana’s first wildlife protection law. The first closed hunting seasons followed in 1872, and conservation continued with Theodore Roosevelt and the formation of organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club. Just a decade after statehood in 1889, Montana’s Fish and Game Board hired its first state game warden, RA Wagner, to enforce the new game laws.
The Montana Historical Society collection contains many of these images of early hunting, where hunting practices were very different than they are today.
The idea of hunting in Yellowstone National Park is alien to our modern sensibilities, but it was still legal in 1875 when this photo was taken. The park was established in 1872, but hunting was banned until 1883, when park managers realized the loss of wildlife. The five moose pictured are in velvet, the antler regrowth season which occurs annually during the summer months.
Internationally renowned naturalist, author, and conservationist William T. Hornaday was sent west to Montana by the Smithsonian in 1886 to collect specimens of the last wild herd of bison. What he saw prompted him to write The Extermination of the American Bison, in which he wrote about the legendary animal’s near extinction. In 1908, six years after this photo was taken, Hornaday helped establish the national bison range outside of Moiese.
LA Huffman photographed some of the last remnants of the Old West and later established a photography shop in Miles City from 1879-1931. Arriving at the age of 25, Huffman conquered Montana before the arrival of the railroad and the rise of the large cattle industry. In this photo, he poses with a grizzly bear on the prairie. Native to prairie ecosystems, grizzlies used to dominate Montana’s open countryside until white settlers wiped out many and herded the rest to the mountainous environment where they live today.
The Hilger family settled on the banks of the Missouri River near the Gates of the Mountains in 1867 and quickly became a prominent family in the Helena area. It is interesting to note that even at a time when hunting for food and commercial purposes was the norm, some hunters still valued the trophy of the heads. The variety of species on display along with the hunters is remarkable: a mountain goat, a bighorn sheep, a moose, a mule deer, a white-tailed deer, a bison skull, and the pelts of wolves, coyotes, and a black bear.
Today’s hunters will see the size of this bull moose’s antlers and consider them a trophy of a lifetime. But there seems to be more of a story here that one can only speculate about. Had the hunters skinned the moose and shot the two bears when they reached the killing site? Or did the hunters come across the bears that were feeding on moose? Or maybe the story is something completely different?
After the Northern Pacific Railroad found its way west, hunting trips were announced for easterners coming west to pursue quarry and adventure. “Indeed, throughout much of Euro-American history, it was not ‘comfortable’ for women to take up activities so strongly identified by men as hunting.” Mary Zeiss Stange writes in her essay “Women and Hunting in the West” : “Frontier women established themselves as Hunters throughout the American West, and over the next few decades increasing numbers of middle- and upper-class Easterners gravitated west to share some of the adventures of their pioneering sisters.”
For much of the 19th century, market hunting was a major industry in the West and led to the decimation of bison populations from millions to just a few hundred. For these market hunters, mule deer and bighorn sheep seem to have been their hunt. Market hunting of big game ended with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900.
As cattle and sheep herds spread throughout Montana and throughout the West, predators such as coyotes came into the crosshairs. Bounties, gunfire, and poisoning resulted in hundreds of thousands of coyotes being killed in the name of protecting livestock.
Unlike modern times, when hunters in synthetic camouflage would roam the hills with high-powered scoped rifles, 19th-century hunters used lever-action, iron-sighted rifles and wore everyday clothing.
Professional hunters called “Wolfers” killed the dogs for the market value of their fur. They were commonly hired by ranchers to protect their livestock. In 1915 the US government hired its first wolf hunters and they killed more than 24,000 wolves before being disbanded in 1942.
Although we can’t say for sure, one might assume the use of these tripods was intended to heal wild birds. Hanging wildfowl until they started to decompose was a common practice at the time to give the game meat a richer flavor.
These three men are wearing waders, a type of waterproof trousers that hunters still wear today when hunting waterfowl or fishing in rivers. Even today, when many fall hunting seasons overlap, these hunters have a colorful mix of waterfowl and big game.
Hunting and technology go hand in hand. The introduction of the automobile made reaching the backcountry even more efficient, and in turn made hunting game more efficient. As history has shown, the advent of technology such as centerfire rifles, scopes, automobiles, and more has made hunting easier. Who knows what hunting technologies will be available in 100 years?